Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.
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I have spent a lot of time in my books and blogs and seminars defining empathy. One of my most popular blog posts is Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style. Each time, I get better at it. That is the nature of empathy, actually. It is a process that grows stronger over time, as it is used and refined. Think about it, without empathy all you have is words (i.e. context and conversation), but no meaning to connect one person to another.
We see children first making attempts at empathy when they are about age six. For example, an NT child may offer to share a cupcake with a friend at school, even though they have been warned not to share food. The NT child’s need to connect is greater than the rule, or the repercussions for being scolded over breaking the rule.
On the other hand, the ASD child may also try to share their cupcake and then be humiliated when they are scolded by the Duty Aide. The ASD child is humiliated not because they shared the cupcake, but because they didn’t know the rule about sharing (or they got caught). It is kind to share the cupcake. It is empathy to do so in spite of the rule.
Subtle, isn’t it? Empathy is like that. It is the ability to know what you are feeling and thinking (such as, “I can’t wait to eat this yummy cupcake”) — at the same time that you see another child without a cupcake, and you wonder what they are thinking (such as, “I sure would like a bite of her cupcake”). The child acts on this wondering by offering some cupcake to the other child. If the child looks interested, the first child breaks off a piece of cupcake, and hands it to the other child. They smile at each other, as they wipe cupcake crumbs off their lips. Then they both wink at each other with an understanding that they broke a rule — and started a friendship.
However, the ASD child learns another lesson. The ASD child may want the cupcake. They may want to be polite and accept the offering. They may even want the friendship of the other child. However, breaking the rule is anathema to the ASD child. When they are caught sharing the cupcake by the Duty Aide, they may blame the other child by saying something like “she made me do it.” From this encounter, the ASD child learns that rules are more important than friendships. Sadly, she cut off a budding relationship.
If simple mistakes like this are made by six-year-olds, is it any wonder that the empathy gap widens as we grow up? By the time we are adults and engaged in life with a marital partner, and perhaps children, NTs and “Aspies” are light years apart in their abilities to connect.
As I have described many times in my books and blogs, empathy is more than emotion, or feelings, or sensitivity, or even understanding another person’s emotions, thoughts and feelings. True Empathy requires integrating a complex array of social and interpersonal information, and in a split second be able to talk about it with another. This is what is meant by “connecting,” or being “in tune,” or “in sync,” or “vibrating,” or “resonating” with another person (or life form).
My goal with this blog post and my MeetUp group, Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD, is to enlighten and to search for the elusive communication, so that even without empathy, “Aspies” and NTs can connect. If you are not a member of my group, please join and if you are a member, please join our events and our discussions. You are not alone.
You have been doing it all wrong in your relationships if you have been following the usual advice on improving communications with a loved one on the Autism Spectrum. Listening to your heart – being direct – using a “soft” startup to a conversation – active listening – all will bring the wrong outcome.
Connecting with your ASD loved one requires so much more than you realize. You will be frustrated if you use these standard approaches, just as these folks below. Can you tell which comments came from the “Aspie” and which the NT?
“I don’t get small talk. It seems like a waste of time to me.” From a puzzled “Aspie.”
“I am very direct. I mean, what’s the point of wandering around and not getting to the point? I like to get right down to business and explain the little things later. Like the time I was trying to explain to my partner that the way he talks to me is hurtful.” From a well-intended, but indirect NT.
“My partner likes small talk. I guess it makes her happy to gab and gossip. So, I politely wait until she is finished.” From an ill-informed “Aspie.” I wrote a blog post entitled Why is Small Talk the Bane of “Aspies”? to talk about this specific topic.
“You know, I have needs too. So, I am direct about them. It’s just that he doesn’t think my needs are important.” From an NT who is drawing an incorrect conclusion.
“My wife accuses me of not listening, but I am an excellent listener. I hear every word she says. It’s just that she wanders around so much, that I lose track of the point.” From an “Aspie” who thinks listening is documenting word flow. Understanding Context Blindness in our ASD partners is important.
“Why doesn’t he listen to me when I tell him how I feel? He’s such a robot!” From an NT who wants an intuitive understanding of her inner process.
“She thinks I have no feelings and yells at me over nothing.” From an “Aspie” who recognizes the anger but has no idea what to do with it.
“I don’t deserve to be treated this way by my own spouse!” Both “Aspie” and NT feel this way, and so the tragedy unfolds.
I am sure that most of these comments sound very familiar to you. You’ve been there; done that. Tired of the same old, same old? Confused, hurt, angry? There’s a good reason. If you are NT you have been approaching your partner expecting Empathy, using Context Sensitivity as your matrix, and waiting for your partner to recognize You, the You who is talking.
On the other hand, if you are “Aspie” your distress is justified because you are being asked to operate as an NT, but without the skill. Furthermore, you’d just like to be taken at your word, instead of all of the innuendo thrown your way.
Relationships are hard. Throw out all empathy from one of the partners and you get a whole new mix. Because people on the spectrum lack empathy, they inadvertently cause others to feel ignored, unappreciated and unloved. Many cope by coming up with an explanation of why life has turned out the way it has. But these explanations change nothing.
Everything you talk about should be about what you’re feeling or hearing or seeing or smelling right now. Don’t analyze. Don’t blame others or yourself. Don’t judge either. No complaining. No explaining.
If you are part of my MeetUp group, Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD, let’s dive into these communication problems and find solutions. In this post, I’ve been giving examples of daily talk with your ASD spouse and why using an empathic approach won’t work. Join me for video conferences and join our small group to discuss these serious issues. If you want a 1-1 session with me, I also offer video conferences and teleconferences every week to discuss and make a plan on how to improve and move on with your life. Check my Contact page to schedule an appointment.
I’ve been working as a psychologist for over 40 years now, and I’ve written countless blog articles about context blindness in people on the spectrum. I’ve also given numerous talks on this topic. I’ve mentioned it in two of my books too, Out of Mind—Out of Sight and When Empathy Fails. Now and again, there is a need to resurface this topic, because it explains so much of the behavior of our life partners, friends, and family with ASD.
For most people, context is a part of life. Everything is relative and depends on the context. For someone with “Asperger’s,” life is absolute – especially regarding social interaction. Neurotypicals still have to find ways to cope with the context blindness and resultant cluelessness of their ASD loved ones, but I do think the theory of Context Blindness helps in this regard. Understanding better how your partner thinks is tremendously helpful.
Context Blindness is one of the many themes we discuss through video conferences and free teleconferences (soon podcasts too) in our MeetUp group, “Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD.” Our next video conference is titled “Autism as Context Blindness,” and I’ll be giving this talk on June 18th and June 23rd. This group has been created from a need of our community to gather in a safe and private place to discuss our daily difficulties and problems. If you are a partner or have a loved one suffering from “Asperger Syndrome,” I invite you to join our community.
What does mimicking mean? There are lots of ways to think about this. People with ASD will copy behavior and words we use because they do not learn empathically. Instead, they hope to connect by observation. With age, they might do it more often.
I’ve written quite a bit about the science behind “Asperger” behavior or why our loved ones on the spectrum react the way they do. Next week, I’ll be talking about this subject, and I’ll also be giving my second, and final video conference on the topic of “Why does my “Aspie” mimic me and others?”
Social interaction requires grace and skill. For NTs, this is something we acquire over time as a result of multiple social exchanges. We make connections. We compare ourselves to others. For our ASD loved ones, this process is very different. Mimicking is good enough because they have no idea there is anything behind our social behaviors. Their patterns of communication are different.
The world is full of patterns, and people on the spectrum also have patterns of communication. Once we understand these patterns, we can understand our “Aspie” better, so our relationships can improve. Once you know their patterns, you have a better chance of connecting in their world.
It took me forever to break the code because I was trying to understand them from an NT (neurotypical or non-autism spectrum) perspective. Once I let go of that notion, I could more easily see the patterns they use to make sense of the world.
Many of our loved ones on the spectrum chose us because we are very socially adept, or we are kind and compassionate, or another quality that makes it easier for them to mimic us, or come to rely on us to carry the social situation.
During my video conference, next week, I’ll be talking more about what this looks like and how to take back your right to your own self-expression. It is hard to understand that we are enough, and our feelings are valid. The very act of making choices, we prove how amazing we are. The freedom to choose is immensely important to our self-esteem. My blog, “Why Self-Compassion Is Better than Self-Confidence,” might be a useful read for you.
If you want to know more about these patterns and how to take back your life, I encourage you to join our MeetUp community, “Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD.” It’s a space for partners, family, and friends of people on the spectrum from around the world. This is a community that understands and can empathize with your daily struggles. You will also have access to weekly video conferences to help you navigate through your highs and lows and reclaim your life. I hope to see you there.
If you are a Neurotypical in a relationship with an adult on the Autism Spectrum, you will know in a minute of conversation if your new therapist has a clue about Empathy and Empathy Dysfunction. If they don’t get it that your spouse or partner (parent or sibling) lacks empathy, and that this is painfully disruptive of the relationship — then move on to another therapist.
It’s important for you to remember that an inexperienced therapist is potentially quite damaging to your self-esteem. Don’t take the risk.
Below are some red flags to look out for when choosing your therapist:
The first red flag is that your therapist relies mostly on her empathic nature to provide a healing environment for her clients. While this is nice, and will work for you, it won’t work for your ASD family member. And it will backfire.
The second red flag is that she becomes annoyed with you for trying to explain your partner’s Empathy Dysfunction. She will see you as complaining instead of trying to guide her toward a more fruitful approach.
The third red flag is her assumption that your ASD partner will develop insight from therapy and become more aware of you as a result. Because she fully believes that all people have empathy to some extent, she will keep using this approach and likely go nowhere.
Trust your intuition. If you like the therapist and so does your ASD spouse, it may be worth it to teach her how to work with you. She may be willing to read some books or take a course at the local university. At the very least, her desire to get it, is a big deal, as long as she can handle confrontation from you when she has wandered afield.
Obviously, your best bet is a therapist who has a solid education in the specialty of Autism Spectrum Disorders, and she has experience treating NT/ASD couples and families. If you can find an NT therapist who has personal experience living with Autistics in her family, all the better. But make sure she has really come to terms with her own psychological trauma — and that she can work with Empathy Dysfunction.
There is a small group of the opinion that only Autistic therapists should work with these relationships, but that seems an oxymoron if you ask me. Why would you want a therapist with an Empathy Dysfunction, advising a couple where the primary breakdown in the relationship is due to EmD-0?
Relationships between Neurotypicals and people on the Spectrum can be very tough, but as a seasoned professional I will help you through the dark times. Focusing on the Neurotypical partners and family members of someone with ASD, I help my clients understand “Asperger Syndrome” and then take a closer look at how it impacts their relationships. If you need professional help, you can contact me to schedule an online appointment on my Contact page.
Of all of the people who should have the empathic skill to “get you,” you’d think it would be psychologists, and social workers, and marriage/family therapists. But in fact, they are sometimes the least prepared to help those of us who are in NeuroTypical/Autism Spectrum Disorder (NT/ASD) relationships, or Neurodiverse Relationships. Even those who claim to have special training in Autism Studies, may not necessarily get you or comprehend what you live with.
Why? It’s pretty simple really. These well-intentioned professionals make three damaging errors.
First, they assume that the underpinning of all psychological healing is an empathic relationship with their client.
Second, they teach empathic listening skills as if this leads to interpersonal change in all people; it does not.
Third, because of their emphasis on relying on empathy in the therapeutic relationship, they deny the emotional experience of the NeuroTypical — who lives with a partner without empathy; this mistake crashes the therapy.
As a result of these three errors, the ASD/NT couple often ends up moving on to yet another psychotherapist, who continues to get nowhere with them, and may even cause more frustration and anguish.
You need to understand just what Empathy is in order to fathom why EmD-0 is so destructive to relationships and family life. Further your therapist needs to grasp the problems created in a relationship where one partner lacks empathy — if they are going to be the least bit helpful.
Empathy is an elegant system of human interaction, in which we notice the person who is speaking to us (or engaging us in some way). We notice their gestures, their facial expressions, their tone of voice for example. We notice if any of these things change over the course of the conversation — and we respond to those changes. The most important part of any conversation for those of us with empathy — is the person who is speaking.
Your Therapist Needs to Imagine a World Without Empathy.
The problem with most therapists is that Empathy is their world. It’s how they interact all day long with others, their friends, family and clients. It’s also why we NTs get stuck in our relationships with those on the Autism Spectrum. For years, we have been making the same mistakes as the kind and empathic psychologist or social worker. Blindly using empathy to communicate with someone who has Zero Degrees of Empathy, is — well — not very empathic is it?
When it finally occurs to us that empathy will not provide the solutions to our relationship problems, we are truly stumped. We can’t believe it and try harder to impose our empathic ways onto our Autistic loved ones. We may become depressed, angry or sullen because of this failure. This is a tough place to be. It feels like a blind canyon, with no way out. If your therapist is stuck with you in that blind canyon, then all hope is lost. It’s at this point we absolutely must find a therapist who gets it. By getting it, I mean that the therapist uses their empathy to imagine a world without empathy. If they can do that, they can understand the “Aspie.”
It’s my job as a therapist to enter your world, no matter how foreign to me, and walk with you out of the confusion — and with a plan that works for all involved. Don’t settle for anything less from your therapist.
If you are ready to receive help and you are looking for a professional with over 40 years of experience, please go to my Contact page to schedule an online video appointment.